Healthy eating: Navigating special diets

Chicago TribuneJanuary 14, 2014 


Pillsbury’s line of Gluten Free Doughs in Chocolate Chip Cookie and Pie and Pastry helps meet dietary restrictions for guests. Gluten, a protein in wheat, shows up in most traditional breads and pastries.


  • Strategies

    There are many food allergies, intolerances and specialized diets. Here are a few guidelines:


    What to know: Does not eat animal products or animal byproducts (e.g. butter, cheese). Subgroups: lacto-ovo vegetarian (dairy and eggs OK), pescatarian (fish OK).

    Label alert: Check seasoning packets. No gelatin or animal-based rennet.

    Cooking tip: Serve a vegetarian chili or lentils.


    What to know: Plant-based diet. Does not eat eggs, milk, cheese.

    Label alert: Check labels of baked goods, prepared sauces. Agar and guar gum are OK.

    Cooking tip: Consider soy- or coconut-based milks and fats. Instead of mashed potatoes prepared with dairy, try baked potatoes with toppings on the side.

    Peanut allergy

    What to know: Some recipes (Mexican moles, Thai sauces) may contain peanuts.

    Label alert: Look for “May contain traces of …”

    Cooking tip: Don’t cook with peanut oil. Consider using seed butters (sunflower, pumpkin) or soy nut butter made from roasted soybeans.

    Tree nut allergy

    What to know: Includes pecans, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews.

    Label alert: Be alert to cross-contamination.

    Cooking tip: Try using roasted pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds for crunch on a salad. Or try roasted garbanzo beans.

    Celiac disease and gluten intolerance

    What to know: Gluten, a protein in wheat, shows up in most traditional breads, pastries. Check deli meats, bottled sauces, sauced frozen vegetables.

    Label alert: Can also be found in other grains; sometimes rye, barley and oats. Watch for “their derivatives in the ingredients used.” If a person can tolerate a small amount of oats, use those labeled “certified gluten-free.”

    Cooking tip: Use cornstarch, potato starch or arrowroot for thickening. Consider quinoa, brown rice, polenta.

    For further guidance and specifics:, and

    Chicago Tribune

Entertaining can be full of challenges whether you’re the guest or host. Those challenges may increase if food allergies, food intolerances and special diets, perhaps vegan or vegetarian, are in the mealtime mix.

Your vegan brother won’t eat a dessert that uses honey. A lactose-intolerant cousin will pass on the butter.

“When it comes to an allergy, your immune system is involved. It can be as simple as having an itch or rash and potentially lead to a life-threatening reaction where you stop breathing. So an allergy is something that is much more severe,” said Vandana Sheth, a California-based registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and representative for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

With a food intolerance, on the other hand, “it’s more that your body’s not able to process specific things,” says Sheth. “With lactose intolerance, for example, the most common intolerance that people have, you’re not involving the entire immune system.”

Dozens of foods or food groups can cause allergies, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But the eight major allergens are milk, eggs, fish (e.g. bass, cod), crustacean shellfish (e.g. shrimp, lobster, crab), tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. The FDA requires food labels to list them.

Those with allergies or food intolerances or who follow a special diet know what foods cause problems. Friends or relatives may not. They may not realize there can be eggs in mayonnaise or wheat in soy sauce, or that there are alternatives available.

Avoiding confusion begins with the person with dietary considerations. Touch base with the host before a gathering that will include a meal or snacks, says Sheth, and be as specific as you can about what you can and can’t eat.

“A guest might say, ‘I’ve become vegetarian, and I should be able to eat most of the things, but if you’ve used chicken broth or something, I may not eat it. Please don’t be offended. Can I bring something?’ ” she suggested. “That way, you’ve let them know you don’t want to put pressure on them to make a whole entree that’s vegetarian for you and that you can bring that.”

If you’re the host, find out if any guest has food allergies or sensitivities. When you are preparing the menu, consider items that will work for everyone rather than making several different versions.

“When you’re cooking and trying to keep food safe, people don’t think about using that same wooden spoon or cutting board for preparing foods that might cause problems,” Sheth says.

Host-guest conversations have to be comfortable for both parties.

“The host might be freaking out with all these different restrictions. So as a guest, try to be more understanding,” Sheth says. “Realize ultimately, it’s your responsibility to ensure that what you’re eating is safe.”

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